I open the letterbox, and, to my surprise, pull out two identical envelopes, both containing train tickets. Upon closer inspection, I realise, with a sinking feeling, that they are duplicate tickets for the same journey.
I curse the SNCF and their wonderful, shiny, new website.
Later that day, I phone 3635 to see how the situation can be remedied. First, I am told that it has nothing to do with the SNCF whatsoever, as the website is run by another company, “Voyages SNCF”. Well I never! A French fonctionnaire merrily* shunting the responsibility for my problem onto another person/department/company. How novel.
I persist, undeterred, and manage to establish that although any complaints about the shortcomings of the website should be addressed to Voyages SNCF, to obtain reimbursement of my ticket, I simply need to take it to any station, before the date of travel.
This was yesterday. Date of travel being today. After which I would no longer be able to obtain a full refund of my € 100.
I resolve to spend my lunch hour in St Lazare station, the nearest mainline station to my office. As I approach the guichets grandes lignes, I am not a little relieved to note that there are only three or four people in each queue. This should be painless, I think to myself, idly wondering which sandwich I will by from Paul for lunch once I am done. A Dieppois? A fruit tart, to celebrate?
The employee listens patiently to my explanation, without interrupting, and when I have finished points silently to a very small sign: “Départs Normandie uniquement”.
I am not going to Normandy.
Nor can I strangle this man with my bare hands, because he is protected by bulletproof glass.
I make my way, stomach growling, to the opposite end of the station, where there is another sign marked “Billeterie Grandes Lignes“.
Oh. My. God.
Picture a large, windowless, dimly lit room with ticket desks lining three sides. The room was last refurbished circa 1960. The colour scheme is brown, on brown. There are fourteen desks, lining three sides of the room, of which only six are open. The queue zigzags back and forth across the centre of the room, in a decidedly orderly fashion for France, the irritated, overheated people having been shepherded into submission using barriers and red tape. I start to count how many irritated, overheated people must be served before it is my turn. I stop at 50, deciding, on balance, that I’d rather not know.
The time is 13.20; I left the office at 12.50.
Some people in the queue came prepared, and nibble on baguette sandwiches, or read books. I have no such means of sustenance or entertainment at my disposal, so I content myself with fuming inwardly at the number of SNCF employees who are milling about behind the ticket desks seemingly unoccupied; chatting, or just standing around with their arms folded, calmly surveying the mayhem, in full view of the people queuing. Hardly very tactful behaviour.
Occasionally, an employee comes on duty and deigns to sit down at one of the empty desks and pull up the blind to start work. But not before they have sauntered around the room at the speed of a snail and kissed both cheeks of every single fellow fonctionnairein the room.
For every blind that is pulled up, another is lowered, elsewhere in the room.
I finally reach the front of the queue at 14.02. A pleasant and efficient young gentleman with a ponytail refunds my ticket in seconds. I smile, pathetically grateful, as all along I had been imagining what I would do if once I got to the front of the queue, I was told that I was in the wrong place for refunds.
I arrive back at the office at 14.20, looking forward to consoling myself with a sandwich and a strawberry tart.
I see that my boss is back from lunch, looking pointedly at his watch, so I return to my desk, stomach still protesting, crestfallen, and consign my lunch to the recesses of a desk drawer.
At that precise moment in time, I would gladly have paid in excess of € 100 to be able to eat my fruit tart in peace.
*a figure of speech. There was nothing merry about the voice of my interlocuteur. Disinterested, slightly dim and very bored would all be more apt descriptions.